Chess was out because the games drag on too long, and cards weren't an option because gambling in the workplace tends to be frowned upon. So a few of the Washington Redskins settled on playing checkers during their midday breaks last year, specifically speed checkers on oversized cloth checkerboards in the lounge of their northern Virginia training facility. Fullback Larry Centers was best when on the attack during the fast-moving games, but the most confounding competitors were cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Champ Bailey, both of whom played a similar defensive style, hanging back, waiting for their opponent to make a mistake and then tromping him.
On the occasions when Sanders and Bailey played each other, Sanders tried to draw out the inner Prime Time in Bailey, whose reticence rivaled Deion's flamboyance. Sanders would let fly the idle chatter and not stop until Bailey returned it in kind. After all, supreme confidence was the cover charge to enter the NFL's elite-cornerback club, and (until he announced his retirement last month) Sanders was its head bouncer.
It turned out Bailey could talk a little smack too. During a game against corner-back Tyrone Drakeford in mid-November, Bailey capitalized on his opponent's mistake and maneuvered one of his checkers onto Drakeford's back row. "You know this is over, right?" Bailey said with mock indignation. "Just king me already!"
Off to the side, Sanders smiled. "A lot of corners aren't ready at his age, but he's special," Sanders said. "I've waited a long time to pass the torch, and it's going to Champ."
With apologies to the Baltimore Ravens' Chris McAlister and the St. Louis Rams' Dexter McCleon, go ahead and king Roland (Champ) Bailey, 23, as the NFL's finest young cornerback. For evidence, watch closely this season as Bailey, the seventh player picked in the 1999 draft, does, well, virtually nothing. Watch as his interceptions (five in each of his first two years) dry up, as the number of passes thrown his way decreases. Don't be surprised if the sinewy 6'1", 184-pound Bailey—a blanketing 4.2 burner and strong tackier—finishes with, say, two interceptions and 29 tackles, the same totals Sanders had with the Dallas Cowboys in 1997, when he was an All-Pro.
"He's an outstanding player, and you have to watch him because he can turn a game around," New York Giants coach Jim Fassel says of Bailey. "I saw him as a rookie, when Michael Irvin went after him in Dallas, and he picked a ball off. Michael couldn't intimidate him, couldn't outmuscle him, couldn't do anything against him."
During Washington's disastrous 2000 season—when the team wilted under the expectations raised by deep-pocketed owner Daniel Snyder's near $100 million payroll and finished 8-8, costing coaches Norv Turner and interim replacement Terry Robiskie their jobs—Bailey's play was one of the few bright spots. The breakthrough began in Week 2, when the Detroit Lions attacked Sanders, completing seven passes to his side, while Bailey twice intercepted Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch. "It was a real compliment to Bailey," says Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. "People [were throwing] at Deion as if he were the lesser of two evils."
The Redskins finished the season with the NFL's second-best pass defense, and Bailey was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Not satisfied with his personal achievements, he threw himself into an off-season of rigorous workouts and videotape study. One of the biggest lessons he had learned as a rookie came when veteran cornerback Darrell Green invited Bailey to his private Thursday afternoon tape sessions. "Darrell showed me how much better studying makes you" Bailey says. "But I got away from that last year, and it hurt me. Now my reads feel more natural. I feel 10 times better."
Under the aggressive schemes of new coach Marty Schottenheimer, Bailey is learning to make a three-step read, in which he's expected to identify the receiver's route and bump him almost instantly. After struggling at times in minicamp, Bailey devoted 45 minutes a day during training camp to breaking down tapes of his performance in one-on-one drills. "You can see the confidence building in him," says linebacker Shawn Barber. "Whether we're in man-to-man or cover-two, you see Champ playing now and think, He can do anything, and he knows it."
No such claims will come from Bailey. According to his mother, Elaine, Champ never developed a taste for the spotlight. "You could say he was a favorite son in Folkston [Ga., the Baileys' hometown]," she says. "People have talked about him since he was eight years old."